The Single Person's Role in the Church

[These are notes for a talk I gave at the 2019 Post College Life Conference. The audio for this talk can be found here.]

Introduction

I want to do two things with this talk, which is probably more than the organizers had in mind, but I want to address the increasingly common claim that singleness and marriage are equally normative options for Christians and then talk about being fruitful and faithful as a man or a woman in the church.

And the reason I think I need to do it this way is because there has been a heavy push in recent decades to downplay the ordinary calling to marriage and family. Sometimes articles or sermons or books come out on the potential idolatry of family and marriage or on why singleness is an equally normative option for Christians to choose, or sometimes, following this same logic, Christian couples announce that they have chosen not to have children. This topic has also become a hot button issue in the “gay-celibate” and “spiritual friendship” movement, seeking to revive some of the monastic impulses of the middle ages. 

Because of the Present Distress

One of the most misunderstood and misapplied passages on this topic is 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul says, “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: it is good for them if they remain even as I am… Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife… But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord – how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world – how he may please his wife…” (1 Cor. 7:7-9, 27, 32-33). 

But nobody seems to pay very close attention to a few significant phrases: “I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress – that it is good for a man to remain as he is” (1 Cor. 7:26). And a few verses down: “But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep… for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29-31).

Paul explicitly says that he is giving this advice because of the historical moment he was in. Jesus had actually said this as well: “But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!” (Mt. 24:19). What days was Jesus speaking of? He was answering the question his disciples had asked Him about when the temple would be destroyed (Mt. 24:1-2).

And just in case we may be tempted to think that Jesus changed subjects at some point in the discourse, He insists that all of that judgment would come during “this generation” (Mt. 24:34). So Paul’s instructions were not for all times. They were specifically directed at the moment of cataclysmic social collapse of the Old Covenant — the form of that Old Covenant world was truly passing away and the time was short and it was going to be full of distress — and so all these things were fulfilled in 70 A.D. when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, just as Jesus promised. At most, we might say that there may be an analogous application of Paul’s recommendation to remain unmarried to the guy who is called to be a missionary in North Korea. 

Old & New Covenant

There is also some confusion sometimes over the nature of the transition from Old Covenant to New Covenant. One writer says, “For whereas marriage and physical procreation were the necessary means of building the physical nation of Israel, the spiritual people of God are built through the process of spiritual regeneration.” This is unfortunately only half true.

It’s true that the Old Covenant centered on Israel as an ethnic people in a specific land as their inheritance, but all of that was a type and training for the New Covenant which is international and Christ’s inheritance which is now the whole world (e.g. Ps. 2, Mt. 28). Both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant have external signs and blessings and internal and eternal realities. Paul says that Abraham’s true children have always come by faith – often biologically, sometimes by adoption or profession, but always by the miraculous working of the Spirit.

So rather than seeing the Old and New Covenants as opposed at this point, we ought to see the Old Covenant as the seed form of what would grow up into the New Covenant. And therefore, the command to be fruitful and multiply, the inheritance of children and the blessing of long life in the land, and therefore the ordinary calling of a man to leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and become one flesh is not merely still in force, it is still in force with the added promises and power of the gospel.

This doesn’t reduce the blessings of the New Covenant to family and land because of course it includes forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and eternal life and the resurrection, but it still includes family, land, and inheritance in every land, among all people. The New Covenant takes up the basic building blocks of the Old Covenant (e.g. Acts 2:39 — the promise is to you and to your children) and expands the offer and promises and inheritance to everyone everywhere (“as many as are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call”), including those who are not yet married, those who are barren, those who for various providential reasons will not or cannot be married or bear children (cf. Is. 56:4-5).   

Fruitful Men & Women

As we turn the corner and begin considering what a single person’s role in the church is, I want to look at two texts that on the surface may seem unrelated or even unhelpful. “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control” (1 Tim. 2:12-15).

There are several fascinating things about this text, but the one I want to focus on is the fact that Paul says that the woman will be saved in childbearing. It cannot be the case that Paul means that regeneration is literally tied to procreation since Paul is the champion of justification by faith alone, not by works, lest anyone should boast. So in what sense could Paul mean that salvation is related to childbearing? One answer could be the fact that God promised that the seed of the woman would crush the seed of the serpent, and then Mary bore the Savior of the world. Salvation did literally come through the birth of a child. Paul may be alluding to that, but I think there is more. 

This leads us to our second passage: “For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror” (1 Pet. 3:5-6).

The thing I want to point out to you is that word “daughters,” and the reason I want to point it out is because Sarah never had any biological daughters. In fact, for most of Sarah’s life she was barren, and then at the very end of her life, she had one child, a son, Isaac. But Peter says that Sarah is still bearing children, as women imitate her obedient, fearless faith. So I believe this is what Paul has in mind as well: women are saved by a maternal-shaped faith that continues in faith, love, holiness, with self-control. 

Pulling these two texts together, I want to insist that marriage and childbearing is the normal calling for most people, but in the absence of marriage and/or biological children, God still calls women to be fruitful mothers and homemakers, as “they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.” 

And we can make a similar argument for men from the way the Bible describes fatherhood. Yes, it is centrally the act of begetting biological children via marriage, but Timothy was Paul’s beloved son in the Lord (1 Cor. 4:17), and he lamented the fact that the Corinthians did not have more fathers in the faith (1 Cor. 4:15). And of course Abraham is the father of all the faithful. All men are called to a masculine-shaped faith and obedience that the Bible broadly describes as fatherhood.

No Place for Singles, Only Men & Women, Fathers & Mothers

The point I want to make is that there is no gender-neutral place for “singles” in the church. But there are necessary and crucial roles for men and women in the church, and those roles are broadly described under the headings of fatherhood and motherhood, or what we might call a masculine-shaped holiness and service and a feminine-shaped holiness and service. 

Men, your glory is your strength – particularly physical and emotional strength. You are good at concentrating on particular problems and creating solutions. You are good at trying and failing, trying something else and failing again, and finally succeeding. This is why most entrepreneurs are men. Use your strength sacrificially for the good of the world. Start a business, start a ministry, start a podcast, invent something, build something, give away whatever God has given you an abundance of, serve wherever you see needs. But think big and think long term. Think of leaving something behind, an inheritance, a legacy, something that matters. 

Women, your glory is your beauty and your ability to give life. You make homes. The central sign of this reality is the fact that God gave you a uterus. The uterus is a small home inside of you designed by God to make a human being. Whatever God has for you, He has put that inside of you to tell you what you’re for.

You make people. But don’t just think of that as a biological thing, though no doubt most of you will one day do that. But think of motherhood and homemaking as the task of ministering life to the world: serving, loving, giving, blessing, feeding, teaching, organizing, communicating, making beautiful things, music, art, clothing, food – these are essential tasks for giving life to people, of making people. Think big and long term. Be fruitful in every way, and do not pretend to be competing with men. Never be ashamed of being a woman. 

 “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24).

Don’t Be Proud or Have Higher Standards than God
I want to apply this to how you serve now: cleaning up, setting up chairs, running a sound booth, taking pictures, helping with little ones, cleaning homes, chopping wood, sending encouraging notes, praying for needs, giving tithes and offerings, working hard, practicing hospitality and evangelism. If Christ calls you to the task, the task is dignified by His calling.

I also want to apply this to how you pray for and pursue a spouse. Have biblical standards and never compromise them and seek out biblical accountability, but don’t let your pride get in the way of seeking a spouse. Many human standards need to thrown away. What does God say makes a good spouse? What do your parents think? Your preferences or romantic imaginations may be getting in the way.  

Conclusion

I want to be clear: the ordinary calling of men and women is to marry, bear children, and build families under the blessing of God as a central means of building the Kingdom of God. But through various providences, God sometimes calls men and women to temporary or lifelong singleness, and when God does this, He does it for His good purposes and for the good and blessing of the Church, and for your good and blessing, so that you might exercise your fatherly and motherly gifts in the body.

Original Post here. Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

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